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1. Universal Determinism and Deterministic Sys-
Determinism, so say determinists, is misun-
derstood and misrepresented by its adversaries; and
nowhere more than in historiography. Although anti-
determinists justly retort that their position has fared
no better, they cannot well deny the determinists'
complaint. The English word “determinism,” like its
French, German, and Italian counterparts, is of seven-
teenth- and eighteenth-century coinage. It was intro-
duced as a name for two different, but related, doc-
trines. One, the doctrine that choice between different
courses of action can, in all cases, be fully accounted
for by psychological and other conditions, has as yet
played little part in historiography. The other, which,
to avoid ambiguity, may also be called “universal
determinism,” is the doctrine that everything that
happens constitutes a chain of causation, a doctrine
which obviously implies that human history forms part
of such a chain.
Universal determinism depends on a concept of
causation that was not generally adopted until after
the seventeenth-century “scientific revolution.” In an-
cient and medieval philosophy, a cause was conceived
simply as that which produces an effect. Some causes
were taken to produce their effects necessarily, as a
moving hand holding a stick necessarily moves that
stick. Others were taken to have the power to produce
an effect, which they might exercise or not without
necessitation, as a man without necessitation exercises
or does not exercise his power to move his hand. Most
ancient and medieval philosophers accepted the prin-
ciple that every event has a cause. But since most of
them took some happenings or events (namely, human
or divine actions), to be caused by agents and not by
other events, they held that some causes (namely,
human or divine actions), are not themselves events
in a causal chain. Hence they were not determinists.
The Greek atomists suggested another feature of the
concept of causation, which the work of Galileo,
Descartes (even though he was not an atomist), and
Newton was to establish in natural science. On this
concept, every event in nature is a stage in a process
the course of which is determined by laws of nature,
and can be considered a necessary consequence, ac-
cording to those laws, of earlier stages in that process.
A cause of an event is simply a set of initial conditions
that are, according to laws of nature, jointly sufficient
for its occurrence.
This concept of causation underlies Laplace's strik-
ing formulation of universal determinism, in the Intro-
duction to his Essai philosophique sur les probabilités
(1814). Treating the history of the universe as a single
process, he maintained that, from a complete specifi-
cation of the state of the universe at a given instant
(initial positions and velocities of all bodies), a super-
human intelligence knowing the laws of nature could
infer all past and all future states of the universe.
Laplace assumed that mass, position, velocity (the
terms of Newtonian physics) would suffice for the
required specification. Since it is doubtful, however,
not only whether the terms of Newtonian physics or
any possible future physics would suffice, but also
whether even a superhuman mind could specify, in any
terms, a state of the whole universe, Laplace's formu-
lation has been rejected by many determinists. It is
now more promising to define universal determinism
as the doctrine that every event in principle falls within
some deterministic system.
A deterministic system, in the sense here considered,
is a system of things in the universe. For any such
system there is a set of characteristics, each of which
is truly or falsely predicable of each thing in the system,
and some of which allow of variation in magnitude
or intensity (the variables of the system) such that a
state of the system is specified by a description of
everything in it in terms of all the characteristics in
that set. An event in the system may be defined as
any persistence or change in any of its states, in any
respect during a temporal interval. Such a determin-
istic system must, in addition, satisfy three conditions:
(1) all events in it must in principle be explicable
according to fundamental laws, which (2) mention no
characteristics except those in terms of which states
of the system are specified, (3) the explanations being
such as refer to no thing or event outside the system.
Bergmann has usefully labelled the second of these
conditions as “completeness” and the third as “clo-
sure.” Deterministic systems, in this sense, are inevita-
bly abstract. The solar gravitational system, for exam-
ple, consists of the sun, the planets, and so forth,
   Page 19, Volume 2
considered solely with respect to the characteristics
taken account of in gravitation theory, and not as
concrete objects. The duration of such systems is nor-
mally limited: thus, according to astronomers, the solar
system had a beginning, and will have an end. It is
a fallacy to infer that, because such systems are abstract
and impermanent, they are not real.
The complexity of a given deterministic system sets
a limit on how adequate a theory can be developed
of it. The Newtonian theory of the solar gravitational
system, which inspired Laplace's formulation of uni-
versal determinism, is almost uniquely adequate be-
cause the solar system is, in two respects, almost
uniquely simple: both the number of bodies composing
it—sun, planets, comets and so forth, and the number
of variables by which its states are defined, are com-
paratively few. Hence, it is practicable not only to
establish its state at the present time, but also, by the
Newtonian laws, to compute with reasonable accuracy
its past and future states. By contrast, it would be
utterly impracticable to attempt a similarly adequate
theory of the earth's geological history; for the geolog-
ical state of the entire earth at a given time would
be far too complex to define, and the variables deter-
mining geological change are more numerous. Geolo-
gists accordingly simplify. They explain geological
changes by constructing simplified models representing
states of the earth or of parts of it at different times,
and showing how, according to established laws of
nature, the forces at work within one simplified model
would bring about a transition to another. For more
complex systems, we must be content with even less
adequate sketches of a theory.
The concept of a deterministic system has led to
extensions in the meaning of “determinism” and its
cognates in the following way. One who maintains that
a system S is deterministic, or that a set of events K
falls within some deterministic system, is naturally said
to have embraced determinism with respect to S or
K. Such extended special usages are more common in
historiography than the general philosophical ones
hitherto considered. Thus Pieter Geyl has described
determinism as “represent[ing] the historical process
as a concatenation of events, one following upon the
other inevitably, caused as they all are by a super-
human force or by impersonal forces working in society
independently from the wishes or efforts of individuals”
(Debates with Historians, p. 238). He appears to have
in mind the view, accepted by not a few historians,
that social systems are, or are parts of, deterministic
systems, even if individual human actions are undeter-
Such views as that a given system of things in the
universe is deterministic, or that a given set of events
falls within a deterministic system, will hereafter be
referred to as “special determinist doctrines,” by con-
trast with universal determinism or the doctrine that
every event in the universe falls within some deter-
ministic system. Two elementary facts about the logical
relations between universal determinism and special
determinist doctrines are often neglected. First, uni-
versal determinism does not entail any special deter-
minist doctrine. In particular, universal determinism
does not entail the special doctrine which Geyl calls
“determinism”: it implies that human actions have a
place in the causal series, but has nothing to say about
what that place is. It is compatible both with the
doctrine that the wishes and efforts of individuals can-
not affect large-scale historical processes, and with the
doctrine that they can and do. Secondly, special deter-
minist doctrines do not necessarily imply or presuppose
universal determinism. Thus, the special form of deter-
minism mentioned by Geyl appears to allow that the
wishes and efforts of individuals may not fall within
a deterministic system. The classical example of this
logical independence, however, is found in the philos-
ophy of Descartes, who considered the system of mo-
tion and rest in the realm of matter (res extensa) to
be deterministic, except when changes in it were
caused by the activity of thought (res cogitans) which
he took to be physically undetermined. In a Cartesian
universe, even though virtually all happenings in the
material world fall within a deterministic system, uni-
versal determinism fails to hold for acts of the mind.
2. Views Improperly Classified as Determinist. (a)
“Logical Determinism” and Predestinarianism. “Logi-
cal determinism” is the doctrine that the future is as
fixed and unchangeable as the past: that just as what
has been, has been and cannot be altered; so what will
be will be, despite anything anybody may do. In the
classical “logical determinist” argument stated and
criticized in Aristotle's De interpretatione (18b 9-16)
this is said to follow from the premiss that, when it
is made, a prediction is necessarily either true or false.
Aristotle rejected this premiss as false; and A. C. Danto
has pointed out that, if Aristotle was right in doing
so, then historical foreknowledge is in principle impos-
sible. If that is so, then it follows that neither universal
determinism nor any special determinist doctrine in
historiography can be true.
Predestinarianism, sometimes called “theological
determinism,” is the doctrine that from all eternity God
has foreordained everything that happens. It has influ-
enced Christian historiography, although most Chris-
tian historians have accepted Saint Augustine's view,
in De civitate Dei, that divine revelation has to do
with the fortunes of the heavenly rather than of the
earthly city.
   Page 20, Volume 2
Both universal determinism and all special deter-
minist historical theories treat historical events as fall-
ing within a universal or a limited deterministic system.
Neither logical determinism nor predestinarianism does
so. Logical determinism is independent of any causal
theory at all; and predestinarianism is not only consist-
ent with, but is usually held together with, the doctrine
of special providence, according to which the foreor-
dained future contains undetermined interventions by
God into the normal course of events. It can, therefore,
produce nothing but confusion to classify these doc-
trines as determinist.
(b) Absolute Idealism and “Historism.” Absolute (or,
honoris causa, German) idealism reached its consum-
mation in G. W. F. Hegel's doctrine that the true
theodicy, or justification of God to man, is to be found
in the philosophy of history. History is the process in
which Spirit (Geist), or God, or the Idea, carries out
its self-appointed task of attaining self-knowledge: first
externalizing itself in Nature, and then overcoming that
externalization. The working of Spirit manifests itself
at different times in different peoples and cultures, it
being for Hegel a commonplace that, in his own time,
it was doing so chiefly in the Western (Germanisch)
world, especially in its Protestant parts. But although
Hegel thought it dialectically necessary that the self-
development of Spirit should in his time have culmi-
nated in the western Protestant constitutional state,
dialectical necessity is not deterministic. This is shown
by Hegel's repudiation of historical prophecy, the pos-
sibility of which is implicit in determinism in both its
universal and its special forms. “Philosophy,” he de-
clared, “... appears only when actuality is already
there cut and dried after its process of formation has
been completed” (Philosophy of Right [1822], Preface).
It is even more evident from the nature of historical
development as Hegel conceived it. It is axiomatic with
him that what is real is rational. Hence to exhibit the
present as the highest stage yet reached by Spirit is
not only the task of philosophy of history, but also the
mark of its success. To suspect that the present is less
than this betrays a shallowness of mind characteristic
of abstract thinking.
Hegel did not notice that the dialectical necessity
he professed to find in history simply reflected his
axiom. His belief that his philosophical theory of his-
tory was confirmed by his ability to interpret his abun-
dant store of historical information in accordance with
it is therefore a delusion. Any historian of moderate
parts, once assured that the present is the highest stage
reached by Spirit, could discover in the course of
history a main line of development culminating in it.
But such a line of development would not be deter-
ministic. It is not intelligible in the way in which
changes in a deterministic system are, which in princi-
ple are calculable in advance. Rather, it is intelligible
in the same way as, say, the development of sonata
form down to Haydn, which historians of music could
not possibly discern unless they were acquainted with
Haydn's work.
Although the main tradition of nineteenth-century
European historiography rejected the absolute idealist
conception of historical development, and affirmed,
with Leopold von Ranke, that every epoch is “imme-
diate to God,” its value residing in itself, it nevertheless
inherited two fatal legacies from absolute idealism. The
reality of any historical epoch is of course concrete;
and historians who reflected philosophically on their
work generally agreed with the idealists (1) that to
describe the concrete in terms of abstract concepts
must falsify it, and (2) that no aspect of anything con-
crete can be correctly understood except in relation
to all its other aspects. These two doctrines are fused
in the motto used by F. Meinecke for his Die Entste-
hung des Historismus
(1936), Individuum est ineffa-
Until the mid-1940's, this historiographical tradition,
known in Germany as Historismus, on the infrequent
occasions on which it was referred to in English was
mostly called “historism.” That usage will be adopted
in this article, although “historicism” has become the
commoner rendering since the appearance of F.
Engel-Janosi's much-cited The Growth of German
Because of its tenet that every aspect of life in a
given historical situation is conditioned by every other,
historism is sometimes held to be determinist. As the
historians who embraced historism themselves per-
ceived, if all institutions and ideas are to be understood
only in terms of their historical context, then the value
of each is relative to that context: there is neither
absolute good or evil nor absolute truth. Such relativ-
ism is suicidal. No theory which implies that there is
no absolute truth can present itself as absolutely true.
Yet although historism is relativist in this way, it is
not determinist. The “historists” did not think that an
institution or an idea is conditioned by its historical
context in the determinist sense of being a causally
necessary response to it, but only in the much weaker
sense of being an intelligible response to it.
In sum, absolute idealism and historism are not forms
of determinism: neither the dialectical necessity of one
nor the historical relativism of the other is determinist.
(c) “Historicism” and Historical Inevitability. In a
series of papers written in the late 1930's, and pub-
lished in 1944-45, Sir Karl Popper introduced the then
unfamiliar word “historicism” as a label for what he
later described as
   Page 21, Volume 2
... an approach to the social sciences which assumes that
historical prediction is their principal aim, and which as-
sumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the
“rhythms” or the “patterns,” the “laws” or the “trends”
that underlie the evolution of history

(The Poverty of Historicism, 1957). Popper sharply
distinguished historicism from Historismus, which as
was usual when he wrote, he called “historism.” His-
toricism, in Popper's sense, was a fashionable position
in the 1930's, and it has a long history, even though
Popper classified some philosophers as historicists who
were not (e.g., Hegel). There is an enormous variety
of historicist positions, some of which are determinist
and some not. An historicist position is determinist if
and only if the historical patterns or trends the exist-
ence of which it affirms are conceived as falling within
a deterministic system. Theological predestinarians are
historicists, because they make predictions on the basis
of historical patterns which they take to be revealed
by God; but, since they do not think those patterns
to fall within any deterministic system, they are not
For this reason, determinism must be distinguished
from the thesis that what happens in history happens
inevitably. Historical inevitability may be asserted on
either determinist or nondeterminist grounds. Those
fatalists who hold that the future can be predicted by
magic, accept historical inevitability; but they are not
determinists, for reasons given above.
The truth of universal determinism is still disputed.
It is usually advocated on naturalist or materialist
grounds, and assailed on the ground that it is incom-
patible with the freedom of the will, and therefore with
moral responsibility. Those issues are treated elsewhere
in this work; but they are neglected by most historians,
whose interest in determinism is confined to its appli-
cations in history. Pieter Geyl spoke for the antideter-
minists among them when he described his position
as “not that determinism is a fallacy, but that to apply
determinism to history
is an impossible and necessarily
misleading method” (Debates with Historians, p. 239).
Even if universal determinism were true, it would not
follow that any special determinist theory of history
is true.
In consequence, determinism in history is usually
defended philosophically, not by inferences from uni-
versal determinism, but by methodological arguments
that scientific historiography presupposes it.
In A Study of History, Vol. IX (1954), Toynbee
acknowledges that “antinomian” modern historians
consider “Man in Process of Civilization” to be a
province of the universe that is not subject to laws
of nature, and observes that such a view must be rep-
robated as “blasphemy” by all right-minded devotees
of natural science. There are, Toynbee declares, only
two possibilities: the province of man in process of
civilization is either one of “Order” or it is one of
“Chaos.” If of Order, then processes in it are subject
to laws of nature; if of Chaos, then processes in it are
unintelligible: history is “just one damned thing after
another.” Now, whatever their antinomian professions,
historians do not in practice treat history as a Chaos.
They profess to find intelligible patterns in it, and even
to furnish explanations. Hence, Toynbee concludes,
historians methodologically presuppose that history is
a province of Order: that is, that historical events are
subject to laws of nature.
When the determinist implications of this conclusion
were made clear to Toynbee, he repudiated them, and
announced that, although he cannot alter the laws of
nonhuman nature, man can alter the laws of his own
nature with God's help. Toynbee appears to have re-
mained unaware that this implies that man in process
of civilization is not subject to laws of nature—the very
blasphemy against science he had denounced in anti-
nomian historians! Of course, his implicit recantation
does not invalidate his original argument.
Toynbee makes several questionable assumptions:
such as, that the only intelligible order there can be
in human history must be of the kind discovered by
science in natural processes. To state this assumption
is to throw doubt upon it. Like all social scientists,
historians seek order in what they study. They classify,
compare, and generalize. But not all classifications are
of natural kinds, and very few generalizations even
remotely resemble putative laws of nature. In their
present state, it is plausible neither that the social
sciences have as their sole scientific function to estab-
lish the lawful determinants of the events they study,
nor even that they presuppose that all human actions
have lawful determinants.
In most special determinist doctrines that have com-
manded serious attention from historians, some kind
of social group is singled out as the intelligible unit
of historical study. States, nations, races, cultures,
classes, civilizations, and organized religions have all
been accounted such units; and determinist theories
have been offered both about conditions that occur in
them, and about their courses of development.
As put forward by social scientists, hypotheses about
causal factors in the occurrence of this or that social
condition usually fall short of determinism: that is, of
   Page 22, Volume 2
the form, whenever a condition of the kind C1 occurs
in a group of the kind G, then a condition of the kind
2, must, other things being equal, follow. Yet, in pop-
ular presentations, they often assume this form. Thus
race and physical environment, which obviously have
some causal significance, have from ancient times
cropped up in determinist theories. That the powers
of Western Europe developed in the nineteenth cen-
tury conditions that enabled them to dominate the
world was commonly believed to be an inevitable
consequence of the nature of the “white race.” Sophis-
ticated historians like H. T. Buckle persuaded them-
selves that the irregular work habits then characteristic
of Spaniards, by contrast with the steady ones of the
English, were consequences of an extreme as opposed
to a moderate climate. Both racialist and environ-
mentalist forms of determinism are now discredited;
for geographers have produced abundant evidence
with which neither can be reconciled. No special de-
terminist theory relying on other alleged causal factors
is even superficially plausible.
The numerous determinist theories of historical de-
velopment can be classified as cyclical or noncyclical.
1. Cyclical Theories. In his Republic, Book VIII
Plato taught that even the ideal state is subject to
decay; and, in decaying, would pass through the stages:
timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, tyranny. Prima facie,
this is an early cyclical determinist theory, although
many Platonic scholars interpret it as no more than
an ethical parable. Of the innumerable later cyclical
theories, three are still discussed by historians: those
of Giambattista Vico, of Oswald Spengler, and of A. J.
In his Principles of a New Science... concerning
the Common Nature of the Nations
(1st ed. 1725, 3rd
ed. 1744), Vico maintained that in the development
of their customs, laws, governments, languages, and
modes of thought, all nations except the divinely
chosen Israel pass through a course (corso) of three
stages: first divine or religious, then heroic, then
human. Although it is the highest, the human stage
is not stable. Having reached it, nations become disso-
lute, and return to barbarism; whereupon there is a
recourse (ricorso) of the same three stages. Even the
true Christian religion has been established by divine
providence “according to the natural course of human
institutions themselves,” in the return of “truly divine
times” that followed the disintegration of the Roman
Empire (New Science, par. 1047).
Spengler took the intelligible units of historical de-
velopment to be, not nations as Vico had thought, but
cultures, which he defined as groups of individuals
sharing a common conception of the world in which
they live, and especially of its space. In The Decline
of the West
(Vol. I, 1918; Vol. II, 1922; rev. ed., 1923),
he described such cultures as growing in the aimless
wilderness of the human past like flowers in a field,
each independently of every other. Nine of them he
identified, while allowing that there may have been
more; but he closely studied only two: the “Apollo-
nian” culture of ancient Greece and Rome, and the
“Faustian” culture of the medieval and modern West.
Each culture has a life of about a thousand years, in
which it passes through four stages, comparable to the
four seasons; an agricultural and heroic spring; an
aristocratic summer in which towns emerge; an autumn
in which cities grow, absolute monarchies subdue aris-
tocracies, and philosophy and science flourish; then
finally, a winter of plutocracy and political tyranny,
made possible by advanced technology and public
administration. Having fulfilled the possibilities of its
fourth stage, a culture develops no more. It is dead,
even though, like late imperial China, its corpse may
long continue in existence.
Toynbee's theory of historical development in the
first ten volumes of A Study of History (12 vols.,
1934-61) is not without qualification determinist: like
his view about the presuppositions of scientific history,
it is inconsistent. However, it has a determinist side,
which is as follows.
The intelligible units of historical study are neither
nations nor cultures, but societies, and especially those
that are civilized, which, by contrast with primitive
ones, are not only relatively long-lived and spatially
extensive, but also relatively few. They are not neces-
sarily independent, as Spengler thought cultures are,
but one may be the offspring of another. Toynbee
distinguished twenty-one known civilizations, which he
allotted to three generations; primary, secondary, and
tertiary. Of the eight surviving in the present century,
five are tertiary (Western, main Orthodox Christian,
Russian Orthodox Christian, Iranic, Arabic), and three
are secondary (Hindu, main Far Eastern, Japanese Far
Eastern). Each of the five tertiary civilizations is affili-
ated to one of two extinct secondary civilizations, the
Hellenic and the Syriac, both of which are affiliated
to the same primary civilization, the Minoan. Each of
the three surviving secondary civilizations is affiliated
to one of the two extinct primary ones: the Sinic and
the Indic. In addition, there are four extinct primary
civilizations: two of them perished without issue; and
the other two each had two secondary offspring, all
four of which perished without issue. Finally, Toynbee
counted ten other civilizations that were not only
barren but necessarily so, being either abortive, or
arrested, or fossils.
According to Toynbee, a civilization comes into
being when a society responds successfully to a chal-
   Page 23, Volume 2
lenge thrown down by its physical or human environ-
ment; and it grows as long as it continues successfully
to respond to the new challenges to which every suc-
cessful response must lead. In a growing civilization,
successful responses originate in a creative minority,
which is imitated by an uncreative majority. When a
civilization responds inadequately to a challenge, it
breaks down, and a process of disintegration begins.
The unsuccessful response alienates the majority from
the minority it formerly imitated; but that minority,
although no longer creative, establishes itself as domi-
nant. The majority is thus degraded to a proletariat,
either internal or external. Disintegration proceeds in
a succession of routs (times of troubles) and rallies,
usually three of each, terminated by a decisive rout.
The last rally of all civilizations now extinct was to
form a “universal state”; and all surviving civilizations
except the Iranic-Arabic and the Western have already
formed such a state.
When seeking inductively based laws of historical
development, Toynbee treated civilizations as deter-
ministic systems, each of which necessarily passes
through the stages described above. It follows that
Western civilization, like all others, will break down
and disintegrate; the important question is whether it
has broken down already, and, if so, how far it has
disintegrated. In the first six volumes of A Study of
Toynbee decided that whether it has already
broken down is an open question; but in the last four
he explicitly repudiated the conception of civilizations
as deterministic systems, and implicitly abandoned his
search for the laws of their development. At one point,
he suggested that only the disintegration of a civili-
zation might be determined, not its growth and break-
down. Even more important, his principal interest
came to be teleological: What is the point, sub specie
of the system of civilizations itself? In his first
six volumes the function of the higher religions is to
bring certain tertiary civilizations to birth from their
secondary parents; in his last six, civilizations exist in
order to foster the higher religions.
Historically, Toynbee's is the most impressive of the
cyclical theories; philosophically, it is not. His con-
fessed inability to answer the question whether West-
ern civilization has yet broken down, since it cannot
be excused on the plea of insufficiency of evidence,
betrays a radical unclarity in his concept of a break-
down. The internal links between the concepts re-
sponse, growth, creativeness, dominance,
and break-
are plain enough; but what states of affairs in
the world any one of them describes is obscure. Al-
though Vico's and Spengler's theories are less objec-
tionable in this respect, all three have been severely
criticized both philosophically and historically. Most
of the philosophical criticisms are weak. The common-
est is the charge that they involve universal determin-
ism, which we have already shown to be false: a non-
deterministic world may contain deterministic systems.
Another common objection is that Spengler and
Toynbee especially generalize from too few cases; but
Kepler obtained his laws of planetary motion from
even fewer. R. G. Collingwood denounced Spengler
for not “working at” history but only talking about
it, on the ground that he relied on others for informa-
tion about individual facts; and for not “determining
either past or future,” but only “attaching labels” to
them, on the ground that, in making such predictions
as that, between A.D. 2,000 and 2,200 somebody will
arise in the Faustian culture corresponding to Julius
Caesar in the Apollonian one, he did not tell us who
that person would be. Yet Collingwood would hardly
have taxed Kepler with not working at astronomy,
because he relied on Tycho for astronomical observa-
tions; or Adams and Leverrier with only “attaching
labels” to space, because, in predicting that a planet
of specified mass and orbit would be at a certain posi-
tion at a certain time, they could not have told you
that that planet would be the concrete object we know
as “Neptune.”
The cyclical theories of Vico, Spengler, and Toynbee
have been refuted not by philosophers, but by histori-
ans. Each, as elaborated by its author, contains radical
errors of historical fact; and none has found a defender
capable of revising it to accord with the facts estab-
lished by its critics. It is as though every known theory
of the solar planetary system as deterministic had been
shown to contain radical errors about the orbits of
several of the planets.
2. Noncylical Theories. As they lost the Christian
hope of a glorious resurrection, many thinkers of the
eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and of the Ameri-
can and French revolutionary movements that grew
out of it, came to believe not only that man was per-
fectible, but that in history he was being perfected.
Hence, when Michelet's translations, Oeuvres choisies
de Vico
(2 vols., 1835), made Vico's work known out-
side Italy, thinkers in the Enlightenment and revolu-
tionary traditions, while hailing him for treating his-
torical events as subject to fixed laws, substituted
continuous progress for Vico's cycles as their model
of historical development.
In his Cours de philosophie positive (6 vols.,
1830-42), Auguste Comte sought an explanation of this
progressive development; and, conceiving the level of
civilization at any given time to be a function of the
level reached at that time in the various branches of
knowledge, he thought he had found the explanation
in his Law of the Three Stages: that each branch of
   Page 24, Volume 2
knowledge passes successively through three different
theoretical conditions: the theological, or fictitious; the
metaphysical, or abstract; and the scientific, or positive.
Human civilization must pass through the same three
stages. The theological stage, which he subdivided into
fetishist, polytheist, and monotheist phases, Comte
considered to have ended about A.D. 1400; and he was
in hopes that, when he wrote, the succeeding meta-
physical stage was in its last throes. Since he believed
positive knowledge to be cumulative, he therefore
concluded that, in the future as in the past, the move-
ment of history would necessarily be progressive. In
drawing this conclusion, he assumed that the develop-
ment of thought according to the Law of the Three
Stages cannot be thwarted by other historical processes,
i.e., that it is an independent variable.
Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) tempted some of
those who believed that history is progressive to look
to biology for an alternative to the Comtist foundation
for their faith. Among those who succumbed was
Herbert Spencer, who had earlier, in Social Statics
(1851), asserted on teleological grounds that the ulti-
mate emergence of the ideal man is “logically certain.”
In First Principles (1861) and subsequent books, how-
ever, he inferred the progress of humanity as a neces-
sary consequence of a universal evolutionary move-
ment from homogeneity to heterogeneity: an idea he
obtained by generalizing a law of the pioneer embry-
ologist von Baer. Such a movement cannot be inferred
from the Darwinian theory of natural selection; but
Spencer got over that difficulty by retaining Lamarck's
doctrine, now exploded, that acquired characters can
be genetically transmitted.
Both the Comtist and evolutionist theories of pro-
gress are philosophically vulnerable. Even if the Law
of the Three Stages were true, it would not follow that
theology and metaphysics are misguided: the Law
might be a law of degeneration. And even if Darwinian
natural selection ensures evolution by “the survival of
the fittest” (a phrase coined by Spencer), acute biolo-
gists like T. H. Huxley saw that what is biologically
fittest may not be so by other standards of value.
In A Letter to Teachers of American History (1910),
the deeply skeptical Henry Adams, writing as a former
president of the American Historical Association,
maintained that, according to the second Law of Ther-
modynamics, biological evolution is only an aspect of
a more fundamental process of dissipation of energy.
It is evident that human knowledge has increased, but
may not that gain have been bought by a loss in vital-
Within his “degradationist” hypothesis, Adams con-
structed an ingenious special determinist theory of
history in terms of a conception of human development
the germ of which he professed to find in the Phase
Rule of Willard Gibbs. Gibbs's Rule has to do with
conditions of equilibrium in systems consisting of sub-
stances which may pass through a specified number
of three phases: solid, liquid, and gaseous. In The Rule
of Phase Applied to History
(1909), Adams declared
that recent science had disclosed phases besides Gibbs's
three: in one passage he listed electricity, ether, space,
and hyper-space; but in his theory itself he treated the
last three as one, the Ethereal, and identified it with
pure consciousness. He proceeded to assume that the
history of human thought is the history of its phases,
and, by a quite unfounded analogy, that in its succes-
sive phases, the movement of thought accelerates ac-
cording to a law of squares. The phase about which
we are best informed began with the Scientific Revolu-
tion, and was ending, if it had not already ended, in
the twentieth century. Describing it as the “Mechani-
cal phase,” Adams dated it from A.D. 1600 to 1900,
and calculated by his law of squares that its predecessor
should have endured for 90,000 years. The findings of
history and archaeology, he claimed, confirm this: they
make it probable that the thought-life of man in the
100,000 years preceding the Scientific Revolution was
a single Religious phase, which was not transcended
even in classical Greece. In the twentieth century, the
Mechanical phase passed, or would soon pass, into an
Electrical phase, which would be succeeded by an
Ethereal phase. If his dates for the Mechanical phase
are correct, and he thought that the margin of error
could not be greater than a century, the Electrical
phase will last only √300, or 17.5 years, and the
Ethereal only √17.5, or about four years. Even allow-
ing for error, this would “bring thought to the limit
of its possibilities” between 1921 and 2025.
It cannot be denied that Adams correctly prophesied
that in the twentieth century there would be a series
of scientific revolutions. Yet, shorn of its fanciful cata-
logue of phases, and its even more fanciful law of
squares, his theory plainly is, as indeed he acknowl-
edged, a sophisticated version of Comte's. Like
Comte's, it rests on the intrinsically dubious assumption
that the development of thought is historically an
independent variable.
The final noncyclical theory that merits consid-
eration arose within the Marxist movement. At Marx's
graveside in 1883, Engels declared that “Just as Darwin
discovered the law of development of organic nature,
so Marx discovered the law of development of human
history.” Yet Marx's original position was not deter-
minist: it was avowedly a radical version of Hegelian-
ism, in which the self-alienated God of Hegel's Phe-
became self-alienated productive man.
In all societies except the most primitive, Marx held
   Page 25, Volume 2
that down to his own time production had involved
the division of labor and private property. Hence labor
had been alienated from the worker: its products do
not belong to him, and he does not labor for labor's
sake. The prevailing mode of production determines
the social system—the classes of society and the rela-
tions between them. Every social system that arises
from the alienation of labor is divided into two antago-
nistic classes: those who alienate their labor, and those
who control the labor alienated. Slavery, feudal serf-
dom, and working for wages are different forms of
alienation, each of which determines a different form
of class-division: master and slave, feudal lord and serf,
bourgeois and proletarian.
Although in the Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx
and Engels declared it to be inevitable that the prole-
tariat would soon overthrow bourgeois society, they
did not describe it as a stage in a deterministic process.
Like Hegel, they treated history as the history of man,
and man as essentially rational: when he perceives that
he, or his society, is pursuing contradictory ends, he
strives to overcome the contradiction. Every change
from one form of class division to another has come
about because the superseded system was breaking
down under the burden of its contradictions, and a class
identified with a mode of production in which those
contradictions could be overcome seized its opportu-
nity. In the Theses on Feuerbach (1845) Marx wrote
that the point is not to understand the world, but to
change it: theory is a tool of action. The Manifesto
showed the proletariat what it could do, and what,
being human, it inevitably would do: the contradictions
of bourgeois society were reaching a crisis; and the
nature of capitalist production is such that the destruc-
tion of bourgeois society by the proletariat will end
man's alienation from himself, i.e., from his own labor.
For the first time in history, man will be both highly
productive and free.
The conversion of Marx's union of theory and prac-
tice into a determinist theory was begun by Engels
in Anti-Dühring (1877), and completed by Kautsky and
the German Marxists. They conceived human societies
as deterministic systems, in which change can be ex-
plained according to two fundamental laws: that less
advanced modes of production generate higher modes
(the hand-mill leads to the water-mill, the water-mill
to the steam-mill); and that, when a social system is
in conflict with the mode of production that prevails
in it, it is overthrown, and replaced by a social system
that is not. This deterministic theory, which its authors
styled “scientific socialism,” has for half a century hung
like an albatross from the neck of the Marxist move-
The principal objections to noncyclical determinist
theories of history, like those to cyclical ones, are
historical. Historical investigation has shown all of
them to be radically irreconcilable with what has actu-
ally happened. In each, it is usually possible to identify
a major thesis that is the source of error: for example,
in both Comte's and Engels' theories, it is that some
historical variable is independent of the others, namely,
the development either of knowledge or of production.
That all special determinist theories hitherto advanced
in history have turned out false does not show that
all those yet to be advanced will do likewise; but it
is a reason for skepticism.
Universal determinism is analyzed in Gustav Bergmann,
Philosophy of Science (Madison, 1957), and Ernest Nagel,
The Structure of Science (New York, 1961). Whether scien-
tific history presupposes determinism is discussed in A. C.
Danto, Analytical Philosophy of History (Cambridge and
New York, 1965); W. H. Dray, Philosophy of History (Engle-
wood Cliffs, N.J., 1964); and Morton White, The Founda-
tions of Historical Knowledge
(New York, 1965); and also
in articles in Patrick Gardiner, ed., Theories of History
(Glencoe, III., 1959), and W. H. Dray, ed. Philosophical
Analysis and History
(New York, 1966). On special deter-
minist theories see especially Henry Adams, The Degradation
of the Democratic Dogma
(New York, 1919); Isaiah Berlin,
Historical Inevitability (London and New York, 1954); J. B.
Bury, The Idea of Progress (1920; American ed., New York,
1932 and reprints); R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History
(Oxford and New York, 1946), and R. G. Collingwood, Essays
in the Philosophy of History,
ed. W. Debbins (Austin, 1965);
George Lichtheim, Marxism (New York, 1961); M. F. Ashley
Montagu, ed., Toynbee and History (Boston, 1956).
[See also Causation in History v1-38  ; Free Will v2-28  v2-29  ; Hegelian... v2-46  ; Historicism v2-52  ; Theodicy v4-50  .]